When I give talks, I am often approached by people who are worried about their memory.

To feel that your memory may not be up to scratch can be unsettling or even downright frightening. And that's hardly surprising — memory makes us who we are. Being able to reflect on and share the past is fundamental to our sense of identity, our relationships, and our capacity to imagine the future.

To lose any part of this ability threatens the very notion of who we are.

Are concerns about memory the preserve of the post-retirement generation? It seems not.


Younger people are just as nervous of losing access to their past. Go to any big concert these days, and your view of the performer will frequently be obscured by a sea of smartphones, each committing the sights and sounds to a safe, permanent digital record.

As far back as cave dwellers, humans have found ways to preserve knowledge and experiences, but has the modern lifestyle taken it a step too far?

Some studies have found that using an internet search engine can lead to poorer recall of information, although another study recently published failed to replicate this effect.

How about recording events on a smartphone? A recent study showed that a group pausing to take photos at regular intervals had poorer recall of the event than those who were immersed in the experience. And an earlier piece of research suggested that photos helped people remember what they saw, but reduced their memory of what was said.

However, there are novel ways around this problem if you insist on taking pictures. Our own work has shown that distraction can be countered if photos are taken automatically using a wearable camera.

While it may be true that technology is changing the way we use our memory at times, there is no scientific reason to believe that it reduces the inherent capacity of our brains to learn.

Nevertheless, in today's fast-paced and demanding society, there are other factors that may have a negative — but largely temporary — impact, for example poor-quality sleep, stress, distractions, depression and alcohol consumption.

There are a small number of people who may experience memory problems over and above everyday forgetfulness. Head injuries, strokes, epilepsy, brain infections such as encephalitis, or congenital conditions such as hydrocephalus, a build up of fluid in the brain, can all lead to a significant loss in our ability to retain and recall information.

And recently, a new condition has been identified — severely deficient autobiographical memory — which describes a small percentage of the population who report a specific but marked impairment in the ability to recall their past.

These people are the exception though, and most people who worry about their memory have no real cause for concern. When it comes to remembering, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. The friend who gets top marks in every pub quiz may be the same one who always forgets where they left their wallet.

By and large, where our memory fails us, it is because we are tired, not paying attention, or trying to do too much at once.

There may be occasions when technology gets in the way – by distracting us from a potentially special moment, or luring us into surfing the web instead of getting much-needed sleep. Most everyday memory lapses can be fixed simply by being more mindful and less busy.

So, if you want to remember time with friends, my advice is to enjoy the moment, chat about it afterwards and enjoy a good night's sleep.

By Catherine Loveday, Neuropsychologist, University of Westminster

- This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.